Raj Sherman, Alberta Liberal Leader, Promises Free Tuition, More Taxes On Rich
EDMONTON - Alberta Liberal Leader Raj Sherman whipped up the party faithful Monday in a revival-type meeting — delivering a pre-election platform that promised more tax on the rich, free tuition for all, and an end to the reign of Tory "bums" and "bedbugs."
"We are going to put an end to pork-barrel politics," Sherman, flanked by some candidates, told a crowd of 50 at the downtown Art Gallery of Alberta.
"Yes!" shouted the partisans.
"We will fix the public health system in two years, " said Sherman, who is also an emergency room doctor.
He told the crowd that the previous night he was on the phone for hours trying to find a free bed for a patient.
"There was no emergency bed in Edmonton," he said.
"Shame! Shame!" shouted the crowd.
"This government no longer has the moral authority to govern. It's our moral responsibility to throw these bums out!"
Sherman, who was turfed from the Tory caucus last year for public criticism of health policy, compared Premier Alison Redford's team to a bedbug infestation.
"There are bedbugs in the legislature. We have to remove them," he said to cheers.
The show didn't all go smoothly.
The microphone carried a low-level, headache-inducing hum and problems with the overhead projector left Sherman speaking about the needs of Albertans while a sign above him flashed: "No input is detected."
The platform struck a populist theme.
It promised to make gradual cuts until tuition is free for all students by 2025, at a cost of more than $600 million a year.
Sherman said the system will pay for itself in the long run.
"That's how you build a knowledge-based economy, by making education affordable and accessible," he said.
Sherman promised to balance the budget. There have been mulitibillion-dollar shortfalls for four consecutive years.
He said the Liberals will find the extra money by higher taxes on large corporations and on those who make after-tax income of more than $100,000. Those under the threshold will still pay the 10 per cent flat tax.
When asked why not raise the government take on oil and oilsands royalties, Sherman said now is not the time to tinker with the "golden goose."
A move by the Tories under Stelmach four years ago to hike the royalties led to drillers heading out of province and widespread discontent with the government in Calgary, where the major oil players are headquartered.
Sherman promised to save money by overhauling the civil service and what he called its bloated mid-section of "managers managing managers managing managers."
More mid-level supervisors will be sent to the front lines, he said, adding the reform will not lead to public sector layoffs.
Government departments will be streamlined, he said.
The number of legislature members will be cut to fewer than 70 from the current 87.
The government's communications arm, the Public Affairs Bureau, derided by opposition members as a co-opted Tory mouthpiece, will be wiped out altogether.
There will be right of recall on legislature members and free votes in the legislature, except on policies that the Liberals were directly elected on.
There will be new immigration settlement programs, a provincial school lunch program, and guarantees on surgery and emergency wait times.
Sherman, elected late last year as the new party leader, has a daunting task.
While the Liberals are the official Opposition, they have just eight members in the 83-seat legislature.
The party has been falling in recent opinion polls. It took 26 per cent of the popular vote in the 2008 election, but is on track this time to take half that. Other parties, particularly the NDP, hope to improve their own election chances by taking a big bite out of Sherman's team.
The Liberals only have about a third of their candidates selected while the NDP, Tories and Wildrose are almost done. Sherman said the goal is still to get all 87 in place — the government has added four seats for this election.
Campaign manager Corey Hogan wouldn't say how much money is in the Liberals' war chest, but said they are "in the black."
Monday's policy announcement puts the Liberals closer to the left side of the political centre and nearer the NDP.
NDP Leader Brian Mason said the Liberal platform is hardly a bold, clarion call to arms that will undercut popular support for the Tories.
Rather, he said, it's a white flag, suggesting the Liberals are cutting their losses on the centre-right — and on winning the election — and will instead focus on fighting the NDP for hearts and minds of the centre-left.
The NDP has two seats in the legislature, both in Edmonton, but are matching or leading the Liberals in pre-election polls.
"The Liberals traditionally when they're in survival mode move to the left and try and compete with us for votes," said Mason.
Redford has said an election will be called after the budget is passed during the spring sitting, which begins tomorrow.
The likely scenario would then be the budget passed in mid-March, followed by the four-week campaign and a vote in mid-April.